Laurie Simmons at the MCA: Big Camera / Little Camera on View Through May 5th

Laurie Simmons, Big Man Swimming Towards Ladder, 1981. Photo: © Laurie Simmons, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

A lot of things come to mind when one looks at the work of Laurie Simmons: isolation, scale, gender, and the modern myths that surround us. From empty domestic spaces and miniatures, to roles of gender, her work opens up a myriad of possibilities to evaluate the world and ourselves. There is an eeriness and a sadness as an empty yellow bathroom is both serene and unsettling. In another view of the yellow bathroom, a solitary female figure hovers over the bathtub ready to scrub it or draw a bath. The uncertainty is what makes it banal and eerie, grand and emotional. Big Camera/Little Camera highlights the themes she works with and the overall feel in the galleries travel from moments of melancholy to celebration. 

Laurie Simmons, How We See/Ajak (Violet), 2014. Photo: © Laurie Simmons, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

In a 1992 interview with artist Sarah Charlesworth, Simmons said, “There’s an aspect of my work that I rarely mention, and that is sadness. People like to talk about the humor in my work. I don’t respond to that; I don’t see it.” She continued, “I try to be good-natured about it. But I think there’s an element of sadness in the very first picture that still exists in the most recent pictures. That’s an aspect of myself that’s very hard to describe. I don’t fully understand why it’s there.” I would contend this continues today as even her newest works possess a glimmer of sadness even as they are celebratory of the oddness of the artificial and the real, of subculture, and the beauty of the people she photographs in her new portrait work.

Melancholy makes an entrance through the isolation in so much of her work while she celebrates the strangeness some objects possess as they mirror humanity and modern life. In 1981’s Big Man Swimming Towards Ladder, we encounter a doll in a pool, reaching its arm outward and floating toward a ladder. The reflection on the floor of the pool ripples as the black and white composition ignites a comfort while expressing sadness and isolation.

In a long vitrine, cast off and color-coded dollhouse furniture accumulates while figurines pepper the installation. This work is a stark contrast to the black and whites nearby as a veritable rainbow of abandoned play. Once occupying the domestic space of a dollhouse, the inhabitants and their belongings now sit in piles. There is a melancholy here, too, but the colorful installation evokes some joy. A highlight of the exhibition, it acts as a kind of anchor to the whole of the show.

Laurie Simmons, Some New: Grace (Orange), 2018. Photo: © Laurie Simmons, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

A part of the Pictures Generation of the mid-1970s and 1980s, this survey of Simmons’ work spans decades and illustrates not only the changes in her production but the changes in her world view. In more recent decades, she expands her lens outside of dollhouses, vignettes of cowboys and ventriloquist dummies, and enters a space that analyzes subculture, portraiture, and narrative. In the kigurumi series for example, Simmons journeys into the subculture of dollers, taking their pictures as they occupy their characters and play with fantasy. She captures this beautifully and respectfully with bright colors and intriguing compositions that are often within domestic spaces.

Laurie Simmons, Orange Hair/Snow/Close Up, 2014. Photo: © Laurie Simmons, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94.

The final galleries display Simmons’ newest work with more traditional portraiture as her subjects wear painted-on clothing or painted-on eyes. There is a deep introspection in each along with a stark contrast of color and composition. In Some New: Grace (Orange), we see a portrait of Simmons’ child in a suit that is painted on the body, setting up a notion of the artificial interacting with the hyper real. This continues in the final moments of the show. Take How We See/Ajak (Violet), a figure sits for the portrait in front of a bright backdrop that gives the photograph both an artificiality and a hyperreality. Again we see her signature eerieness, a  moment of isolation and play in these works. From the artificial clothing and eyes, to the solitary figure, to the play with color, they beckon back to that vitrine of cast-off dollhouse furniture. Here we witness studies in color and in humanity in a modern world.

This major survey of Laurie Simmons’ work titled Big Camera / Little Camera is on view through May 5th at the MCA.

Carrie McGath
Carrie McGath

Carrie McGath is a poet and art critic is who is currently at work on her second collection of poetry, The Luck of Anhedonia. She teaches writing and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her sassy tuxedo cat, Sophie. You can follow Carrie on Instagram and check out her website.

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